The IT ‘fashion’ industry continues to drive us towards highly fragile environments. A fundamental change is needed and is long overdue.
The theme I continue to labour is that as IT becomes increasingly distributed and interconnected, we simply cannot continue down the same old software engineering path: see my recent posts including ‘Reality is Wondrously Complex’, ‘Cloud the Wasted Decade’, ‘Complex Systems and Failure’, ‘Why Modularity Matters more than Virtualisation’.
So I guess I am more than predisposed than most to agree with AntiFragile‘s. central message. Systems are either:
- Fragile – their capabilities degrade with random change / environmental volatility.
- Robust – their capabilities are immune to random change / environmental volatility.
- AntiFragile – their capabilities improve courtesy of random change / environmental volatility.
Nassim Taleb (the author) correctly argues (IMO) that resource optimisation and prescriptive processes are hallmarks of: fragile systems, fragile environments and fragile organisations. Unfortunately most organisations’ current ‘private Cloud’ and / or ‘Virtualisation’ strategies are justified by – yes you guessed it – resource optimisation and prescriptive / simplistic / automation. There is every indication that the industries next ‘big’ fashion – the ‘Software Defined Data Centre’ – will compound these errors.
To deal with the unforeseen / unforeseeable / a system needs spare resource; and as the unforeseen event is – well unforeseen – there will be no pre-determined prescriptive response.
In stark contrast AntiFragile systems incorporate a large degree of ‘optionality’; meaning the ability to exercise and re-exercise the most attractive option at each point in time.
By trying to understand why biological systems were adaptive and robust whereas software systems were / are / not; Paremus started mapping such concepts to software systems in 2003. As hoped for, this resulted in a set of basic principles which have continued to guide our efforts:
- Robust software platforms must be based upon dynamic resource and service discovery, and subsequent rediscovery. Why? Things Change.
- The platform should continually assess the runtime structures against the desired goal. How close is the current structure to this goal? How can the difference be further reduced / removed? Why? Things Change.
- All runtime units must be loosely coupled. Why? Things change!
- Finally, and most importantly. A platform should strive to be AntiFragile; to be able to harness new runtime ‘Optionality’. To achieve this the platform MUST be modular – it MUST be dynamically assembled from self-describing units – it MUST leverage emergence and environmental feedback.
But I digress; back to the book.
Taleb rightly calls out the naivety of assuming that simple abstract mathematical models, i.e. naive reductionism, can be used to predict Complex System behaviour: this illusion helping prime both the Long Term Capital Markets meltdown in 1998 and the current – even more spectacular – banking crisis (see Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy).
Tabel also makes important observations concerning apparent causation. It is very difficult to predict which of the many adjacent possibilities may be chosen by a Complex System. An adjacent state will be ‘more fit’; but there is no guarantee that it is the ‘most fit’. However, looking backwards, a path of causality seems to exist and appears ‘obvious‘: i.e. ‘history‘ provides us with a simple narrative. Tabel also explains how history tends to be distorted (teleological interpretations) with the following example. Derivatives were traded (based on intuition / ‘gut’ ) long before the rocket scientists got involved. Yet documented history implies the inverse.
Taleb has clearly reached these insights through his own explorations; shaped by his experiences in the Financial Services industry. Yet while Taleb’s presentation is unique, the underlying themes have been previously explored in a number of different domains. In a recent post ‘Complex Systems and Failure’ I briefly reviewed the book ‘Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure’. Here the author (Tim Harford) argues for diversity and the need for speculative experimentation and failure. Meanwhile, in ‘The Future of Money’ (2001 no less!), Bernard Lietaer argues, counter to single currency doctrines, that currency diversity is essential for achieving both stability and localised wealth creation. Stuart Kauffman in Investigations argues that Complex Systems evolve into adjacent possibilities. Kauffman suggests this behaviour explains the explosion in diversity seen in the natural biosphere; and over the last 3000 years the human economy. Meanwhile ‘Diversity and Complexity’ provides a quantitative exploration of why diversity is a fundamental requirement of robust, evolvable Systems. Finally, for those with a heavy theoretical bias – watch out for ‘Dynamics of Complex Systems: from Glasses to Evolution‘; which is due to be published this year.
I’m still reading AntiFragile, so I’ll reserve final judgement. However the concepts and arguments presented are important. There are some omissions. Taleb has not (so far) addressed the fundamental dilemma — my local AntiFragile behaviour today may result in our collective Fragile behaviour tomorrow; i.e. tragedy of the commons. To use one of Taleb’s analogies — rather than solely being concerned about winning a street fight, lets also work on the root issues that trigger such violence?!
Taleb does seem to like the street fighting analogy. Perhaps he’s a natural candidate for speaking at FITEclub in 2013
UPDATE: Completed reading this evening. Contrary to the previous comment – in the closing section’s Taleb does directly address my concern – this via the ‘skin in the game‘ mechanism!
A comment w.r.t. scientific disciplines – unfortunately Physics isn’t quite the shinning beacon as portrayed. Fashions and employability are concerns even for theoretical physicists. If you want a career you were much more likely to succeed over the last decade if you work in String Theory! See Big Bang – or more seriously – The Trouble with Physics and/or Not Even Wrong). Luckily adherence to ‘String Theory’ (or ‘Loop Gravity’) is unlikely to cause the next economic collapse.
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